Hughes 'rebirth' far from proven
Reborn. Renewed. Rejuvenated. Ready. Really?
Phillip Hughes' recall to Australia's Test side to face Sri Lanka has been accompanied by plenty of noise to the effect that it will be a new man who takes guard in Hobart next Friday. To borrow Radiohead's words, Hughes is fitter, happier, and should be more productive.
Since the humiliation of last summer's corresponding Bellerive Oval match, when Hughes completed a quartet of near identical dismissals at the hands of Chris Martin on the way to being dropped, the 24-year-old has gone on something like a journey of self-discovery.
He stood back from the inaugural Twenty20 Big Bash League in order to work on his long-form methods, signed up to play for Worcestershire in England, and worked assiduously with his long-time mentor Neil D'Costa. While at Worcester, Hughes forsook New South Wales to move to South Australia, where Adelaide's cosiness sat more neatly with his Macksville upbringing.
All these moves resulted in runs, though spread across three formats, and what appears a more expansive game that features a better range of scoring strokes right around the ground. He even survived a brief but spicy spell from Dale Steyn when playing for Australia A against the South Africans at the SCG. The national selector John Inverarity feels that Hughes is now "cherry ripe" to play, having made a "compelling" case for Worcestershire and South Australia.
But a closer glance at how Hughes has fared in first-class matches - the only truly relevant measure when pondering his readiness for the Test team - reveals a record not so much dominant as mildly presentable. Including the 158 he struck for South Australia against Victoria at the MCG during the Adelaide Test, Hughes' batting digits are as follows: 1,135 runs at 40.54 in 16 matches, three centuries.
They are hardly the sorts of numbers to have international bowlers quaking at the sight of the diminutive Hughes, nor the kinds of figures that suggest a quantum leap in the left-hander's game. Instead they reflect a gradual improvement over the course of a year, after a dire home summer in 2011-12, both for Australia and NSW.
At the time of Hughes' exit from the Test team, numerous sage observers reckoned that he would need a good two seasons of consistent run-making and re-evaluation of his approach to be ready for a return to the international arena. Inverarity himself appeared to be of that view, and has often stated his preference for young players to be given a consistent run of matches for the one team rather than shunting them up to a higher representative level the moment they show evidence of a spike in batting or bowling form.
Nonetheless, Hughes is now back into the Australian squad little more than 12 months after he left it, and in circumstances heavy with meaning. By replacing Ricky Ponting in Australia's top order, Hughes may be seen as the embodiment of the team's batting future. Of all the young players vying to be elevated to the national team, Hughes' desire for runs and long innings is the most fervent, as demonstrated by his notching of 20 first-class centuries before his 24th birthday.
But Hughes' readiness for the major tasks to face Australia in 2013, first a tour to India then dual Ashes series away and at home, will remain open to question until he faces both opponents. The selectors' curious decision to keep Hughes away from the line of fire during the South Africa series has already stirred plenty of debate, raising as it did questions about how ready they think he is to face the world's best teams.
The use (if not abuse) of Rob Quiney in Hughes' stead was explained by the coach Mickey Arthur before the first Test in Brisbane with the reasoning that Australia needed a team of men, not boys, to face up to Graeme Smith's team. "I wouldn't want to disrespect any nation, but against a nation like South Africa right now, and we'd probably do the same against England and India, you want an experienced head to come in," Arthur said. "You can't blood a youngster against a team like South Africa. We want a guy who is very confident in his ability, a guy who knows his game backwards, and a guy that has got a little bit of experience. That gave Rob the nod."
How that reflects on Hughes is a matter for plenty of discussion, but there can be little doubt that given the lack of standout batting options around the nation, Inverarity and his panel know they have to give Hughes the very best chance to develop into a Test batsman of quality, and longevity. By holding him back until Sri Lanka's arrival they are giving Hughes the chance to settle into the team, much as Ponting helped Michael Clarke to bed down as captain by resigning his commission ahead of tours to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, before the more difficult assignments against South Africa and India.
Ponting's sense of timing in relinquishing the captaincy proved to be exemplary, and the selectors will hope that they have done similarly right by their new No. 3 batsman. For his part, Hughes must continue the upward curve of the past year under the public gaze of the same television cameras that chronicled his unhappiest of Hobart Tests last year. Australia's Ashes hopes may depend on it.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here